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National Paid Family Leave May Finally Be on the Horizon

6:12 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

 

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) is one of the sponsors of the bill to support paid leave insurance for families. (Flickr / personaldemocracy / Creative Commons)

Originally published at In These Times

Any working parent will tell you that raising a family might as well be another full-time job—one that comes with no vacation days or health benefits. But millions of Americans don’t get days off from their regular job, either, even for the sake of their health or their family’s.

According to the National Partnership for Women and Families (NPWF), just 12 percent of American workers can take paid leave time to tend to an illness in their household, and only about 40 percent can get time off for themselves through employer-sponsored disability coverage. This gap affects about two-fifths of the private sector workforce, or 40 million people—a vast deficit compared to many other industrialized countries, where paid leave is routine.

Now, though, some lawmakers are recognizing that taking a few weeks off to deal with a health challenge shouldn’t hurt your paycheck. Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) have sponsored legislation to establish a nationwide paid family leave insurance program that would partially protect the wages of workers who take time off for the medical needs of themselves or their families.

Financed by small contributions from payroll checks and employers, the program would allow workers to “take time for their own serious health condition, including pregnancy and childbirth recovery; the serious health condition of a child, parent, spouse or domestic partner; the birth or adoption of a child; and/or for particular military caregiving and leave purposes,” according to a briefing by NPWF, who is one of the groups campaigning for the bill, known as the Family And Medical Insurance Leave Act (FAMILY) Act.

The proposed monthly benefits would generally range from $580 to $4,000, depending on income. Like Social Security taxes, the insurance would require a small payroll deduction from the employee and would enable workers to earn as much as two-thirds of their regular weekly earnings for 12 weeks. After the first year, the payment rate would increase based on the average national wage. Overall, advocates say, the federal program would help provide stability for many low-income and precariously employed people by covering workers in any size workplace at any income level, including part-timers.

With the state of current legislation, activists point out, even workers with some insurance coverage may experience extreme hardship when a child’s illness destabilizes a family. In a testimony gathered by the New York State Paid Family Leave Coalition, a mother named Devorah from Rosendale, N.Y. recalled the hardships she faced when her daughter was born premature with a severe medical condition and continued to suffer from long-term medical problems in later years. Though her family had some insurance protection, Devorah said, “By the time we walked out of the hospital with our baby, we had spent an additional $30,000 out of pocket.” In her daughter’s first years, she went on:

Read the rest of this entry →

Flammable Material: How Garment Workers Can Respond to the Tazreen Factory Fire

5:47 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Bangladesh labor protest (dblackadder via flickr/creative commons)

Originally posted at In These Times

In a fashion industry where trends change by the minute, the lives of the workers who make the clothes are often valued as cheaply as the products they create. The devastating fire at the Tazreen factory in Bangladesh, which killed more than 110 people, is tied to what labor advocates describe as a powder keg: the manufacturing system in the Global South, where countless factories are one spark away from catastrophe.

A new report on factory safety by the International Labor Rights Forum documents the story of one teenager who survived a deadly fire in 2006, which left dozens of workers to burn in a sealed death trap:

I think that they used to lock the doors all the time because most of the workers were my age, and they thought that we might leave the factory any time, as we were kids. That is why they always locked the main door.

Of course, it would be children who lacked the discipline to stay put, whose natural impulse to resist restraint required the industry to literally lock them in.

Today, the charred Tazreen factory represents the extreme end of a long continuum of anti-worker oppression and violence, beginning with multinational brands that build their profit model on cheap overseas labor, to the brutalization of workers who dare stand up for their rights on the job.

The cost of treating these workers humanely doesn’t add up for brand-name manufacturers. The garment industry death toll in Bangladesh has risen to about 700 since 2005, and seems on track to grow as more foreign business flock to the South Asian country for rock-bottom wages and a burgeoning workforce willing to earn as little as $43 a month, far less than typical wages in China or India. Read the rest of this entry →

Without Workplace Justice, Parents Have No Good Options for Sick Kids

5:50 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Originally posted at In These Times

Every working parent knows what it’s like to have one of those days: a child suddenly comes down with an illness, gets sent home from daycare due to health concerns, and without a back-up care arrangement, the rest of the day has to be taken off, thus toppling over the tenuous work-life balance. Such emergencies happen all the time, but for low-income families, neither the typical workplace, nor government welfare policies, give working parents the leeway and the time they need to care for ill family members.

According to a recent survey of parents using childcare by the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health, about six out of 10 parents said that a child’s illness prevented them from attending their regular childcare in the past year, with four in 10 reporting that occurred “three or more times during the year.”

When dealing with children’s sudden illnesses, parents run into myriad barriers, according to the study:

One-half of parents with children in child care report that finding alternative or back-up child care for their sick children is difficult. In addition, about one-third of parents say taking time off of work with a sick child is difficult because they may lose pay or lose their job, and a similar proportion report that they do not receive enough paid time off from work to care for their sick children.

The lack of options might lead parents to seek more immediate, alternative forms of care, such as the emergency room, rather than regular doctor care. That could cost the entire healthcare system more in the long run. Read the rest of this entry →

$950,000 Win for NYC Workers Invigorates Supply-Chain-Justice Movement

9:45 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Tom Cat Bakery drivers address supporters during a march to protest threats against healthcare benefits. (Brandworkers.org)

Originally posted at In These Times

A lot of the heavy lifting in today’s labor movement is coming from an unexpected place: the warehouses and processing facilities that bridge the retail and wholesale markets. Alienated from traditional labor union structures, these more obscure links in the supply chain offer a new breeding ground for innovative rank-and-file mobilizing. The recent Wal-Mart warehouse strikesin California and Illinois showed how precarious low-wage workers organize on their own in defiance of temp bosses, the police, and the nation’s retail giant.

Meanwhile, in Queens, New York, landmark legal victory for warehouse workers and truck drivers at a local food distributor reveals the value of a more nimble-footed approach to empowering non-unionized workers.

Late last month, a federal judge ruled that distribution company Beverage Plus must pay a group of Latino workers about $950,000 in damages. The decision cited repeated and willful labor violations by the company, including denying overtime to employees who worked up to 12-hour days. Read the rest of this entry →

A Bill to Make Employers Less Mean to Pregnant Women

7:55 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Pregnant women are often victimized by employers. (spaceodissey / Flickr)

Originally posted at In These Times

Whatever our political conflicts, we can generally agree that we should treat pregnant women nicely. We don’t hesitate to help them carry their groceries or give them a seat on the bus. Yet when pregnancy comes up as a political issue, lawmakers are far more fixated on what an expecting mom’s womb is doing, rather than her hands–as she slips the check under your plate and hopes for a decent tip–or her mind–as she loses sleep wondering whether she’ll lose her job as her due date nears.

Under current law, it’s easy for bosses to mistreat pregnant women or force them off the jobYet the men who run Congress are too busy sponsoring anti-abortion bills and slashing social programs, it seems, to protect pregnant women in the workplace. One of the many labor bills left off the congressional radar is the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, (PWFA) which would help prevent pregnant women from being arbitrarily fired and make employers better accommodate them.

According to the National Partnership for Women and Families, the PWFA builds on existing anti-discrimination laws by extending specific protections to pregnant employees. The legislation directs employers to “make reasonable accommodations” for an employee or job applicant’s  limitations stemming from “pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions,” unless this would pose “undue hardship” on the business. In addition, as theNew York Times’ Motherlode explains, the law would bar employers from “using a worker’s pregnancy to deny her opportunities on the job [or] force her to take an accommodation that she does not want or need.” The bill also directs the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to set regulations for implementing these laws, including “a list of exemplary reasonable accommodations.”

It was introduced earlier this year in the House and this month in the Senate–and not surprisingly, faces pretty bleak odds for being enacted. Read the rest of this entry →

Study: Restaurants Feed on Exploited Women’s Labor

7:08 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Next time you plunk down some change on the table before leaving a restaurant, think about what might be behind that service with a smile. A new study warns that when Americans eat out, they feed into an industry fueled by exploitation and rampant discrimination against women.

The report, published by the labor advocacy group Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC) in partnership with a coalition of labor and women’s rights groups, details the restaurant industry’s secret recipe for fattening profits: low wages, harsh working conditions, erratic hours and multiple racial and gender barriers to job advancement–all served with a side of broken immigration laws and a powerful industry lobby.

In a testimony in the report, Claudia Muñoz recalled how her job at a national pancake chain restaurant in Texas demanded round-the-clock hours without overtime pay. Scrounging for tips, she earned as little as $160 per week. Muñoz says:

I had to eat less than $6.50 for the employee meal. … I could only afford pancakes. If you were on the schedule for only 5 hours, you couldn’t get a meal. There were days when I wouldn’t eat all day.

Surrounding her was a cross-section of the country’s forgotten workforce:

There were a lot of older people—women in their 50’s. They had children, families, some were single mothers … and $2.13 plus tips was all they had. … It really opened my eyes. It was Latinos cooking, white women working graveyard shifts, men working during the day. I saw the racism, sexism, and low wages in the industry. Everything I remember from that place was horrible. Read the rest of this entry →

The Right to Be Healthy: Supreme Court Weighs Sick Leave for State Workers

12:04 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

SCOTUS (image: debaird, flickr)

SCOTUS (image: debaird, flickr)

Cross-posted from In These Times.

One day in August 2007, Daniel Coleman, an administrator in the Maryland court system, decided he should stay home to recover from an illness, as his doctor had ordered. But the day after he requested time off, he suddenly had more to worry about than his health; he was unemployed, too.

In many industrialized countries around the world, taking time off from work to deal with a medical issue isn’t just a benefit; it’s considered an entitlement, as much as an eight-hour day. But in the world’s richest nation, a worker who claims that right has had to appeal to the highest court in the land.

So the Supreme Court will now weigh the rights of public employees to seek justice under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The case, Coleman v. Maryland Court of Appeals, is based on Coleman’s lawsuit alleging that he was unfairly terminated following a dispute with his supervisor over leave time. Pitting Coleman, together with many civil rights advocates, against Maryland and 26 other states, the central question is whether a state can be held accountable under the law as a private employer would.

The FMLA basically allows workers to take 12 weeks of unpaid time off to deal with either a personal or family health concern. Although a worker at a private company can clearly sue for monetary damages if she is fired for taking time off for pregnancy or to care for a sick child–some courts have ruled differently for state workers’ rights. A lower court found that Maryland is shielded from legal liability in this case under the Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity clause.

The issue before the Court isn’t just a question of workers’ medical rights when they fall seriously ill, but of the state’s obligation to to its employees. Gender matters, too; the FMLA, under the Equal Protection clause, was designed to counter employment discrimination based on women’s medical issues, like childbirth. (But the “self-care” provision in the Coleman case covers both men and women.)

A coalition of groups, including the National Partnership for Women & Families, unions, and the ACLU, argued in a friend-of-the-court brief: Read the rest of this entry →

Washington’s Anti-Regulatory Crusade, and Why Your Job Hasn’t Killed You Yet

12:42 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Carol Simpson Cartoonwork

Cross-posted from In These Times

On the campaign trail, Republican presidential hopeful Rick Perry is spreading the gospel of Perrynomics—a magical job-creation formula based on minimal government regulation of industry, combined with tiny tax rates and tight controls on lawsuits. In a state that seems inclined to cannibalize its own government, this agenda plays well. But a closer look reveals the high price of low regulation.

In recent months, politicians in both parties, including the White House, have claimed that scaling back regulations would unleash economic growth, suggesting that businesses should be liberated from rules that protect the environment, occupational health and other public interests. But a new analysis by Public Citizen presents a few unsung gems of federal bureaucracy that help keep us happy, healthy and sane. Several of these regulatory chart-toppers, not surprisingly, were enacted in defiance of heavy political pushback:

Clearing the Air. Since the days of the Lowell mills, so-called “brown lung” has been a hallmark of the miserable toil of poorly ventilated, dust-clogged textile factories. The disease, also known as Byssinosis, has historically hit women especially hard, spreading its signature coughing and lung scarring to thousands of workers around the world. The epidemic was virtually ignored until the 1960s and 1970s. Then came OSHA’s 1978 rule requiring more lung-friendly machinery, and within a few years the prevalence of brown lung in the industry fell by an estimated 97 percent. And employers’ grumbling about the “costs” of the rule faded when it became clear that the reforms improved the industry’s efficiency as well. Read the rest of this entry →